One of the most pleasant surprises of the Ottawa Senators’ season has been the play of the second pair. Mike Reilly and Artem Zub have achieved stellar results, with Ottawa getting a 53.89 CF% and a sparkling 58.38 xGF% share while the two are on the ice together. They’re also the only defensive pair to boast a positive goal differential at 5v5, thanks to fourteen scored and only seven allowed; I will note here that they are also benefitting from somewhat unsustainable goalie play, as the Sens’ keepers have stopped 94% of the shots they’ve faced in that time — still, the overall success is very real. You could make a convincing argument that they are the best second pairing to lace ‘em up for Ottawa since the 2006-07 season. Damning with faint praise, I know, but after the veritable revolving door of replacement-level players the team has trotted out to fill the spots on the blueline over the years it’s been extremely gratifying to watch the pair go to work.
So now that the Sens finally have a reliable second pair, what might it take to keep it intact? Zub is an RFA at season’s end, and though he’s far exceeded even the most optimistic projections he’s unlikely to command a hefty sum. Reilly, on the other hand, is a UFA and is almost certainly seeking to cash in on his first long-term pro contract; he’s in a position to command the type of deal that will pay him a life-changing amount of money. Considering where he was just over a year ago when the Sens traded for him, it’s been a remarkable glow-up for the Chicago-born defender.
Reilly will be 28 in July, but despite his relatively advanced age he hasn’t played a tonne of NHL games, only 238 to date, as he spent a fair amount of time as a healthy scratchy or bouncing back forth between the NHL and the AHL during his time in Minnesota and Montreal. As a non-star player, he’s extremely unlikely to command anything longer than a four year term, Evolving Hockey’s contract projector estimates that there’s an 87% chance the term of his next deal is four years or less, meaning that whoever signs Reilly shouldn’t be taking on too much risk of an immediate decline. In fact, the model’s best guess at what Reilly’s next deal could look like is 3 yrs at $2.6M AAV; a sizable, but not unmanageable, increase from his current $1.5M annual salary.
To get an immediate comparison for a potential Reilly contract, you need look no further than the recently departed Dylan DeMelo. DeMelo has a bit more of an established track record than Reilly, 298 games played to Reilly’s 238, and he’s been a full-time NHLer for four full seasons. Reilly has likely proven himself by this stage, but at the start of this year there were still some questions about whether his brief success from last year would translate across a larger sample. Reilly has scored a bit more than DeMelo, true, but even this year’s high water mark of 0.41 points per game would still only add up to 34 in an 82 game season. That’s good, but it’s not the kind of scoring that gets you paid in a big way. This comparison might even be generous to Reilly, in fact, as projections for the salary cap are not exactly rosy. Reilly’s entering free agency at one of the worst moments possible; he may have to accept a lot less than he had hoped for based on these circumstances alone.
When the Sens first traded for Reilly, it wasn’t entirely obvious where he would fit into the Sens’ long-term plan but he’s been good enough that he’s surely forced management to consider whether it might make sense to keep him around while they wait for Jake Sanderson and Erik Brännström to grow into their roles. The Sens may yet still trade Reilly, he is a UFA after all and they do have a lot of promising young left-handed defenders, but he’s been good enough to give them pause.
So, I ask you then, dear reader, what would you be willing to pay to keep Reilly around? As the trade deadline approaches, should the Sens pivot from their assumed strategy and keep their successful second-pairing together?